Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review: "Once Around the Sun"

If you take the idea of musical theater (and opera, for that matter) and drag it by the hand out into the daylight, it's a bit absurd. How often do we unironically break into song and rhapsodize about our feelings and thoughts during a particularly fraught moment of life? And yet we take it all as a matter of course and convention with musicals and judge them instead on how well they work within an admittedly artificial world.

But watching the new musical (with all original music -- no retreads) Once Around the Sun the other night at the Zipper Theatre, I immediately felt this show was not going to allow the viewer to stay so stuck in the blinders of the musical form, because the show portrays different bands and musicians singing songs for the entertainment of imagined audiences. So while the audience is sitting there following the storyline of the musical, we're also listening (and judging) the actual music, which is a big part of the story -- as in well-played? schlocky? a hit? a clunker? etc. A few times, I asked myself, "Should I be laughing at this song or enjoying it as if I were at an unironic concert of new music?" Most of the time, luckily, the show makes it clear when you're supposed to be poking fun at the music and when you're supposed to be appreciating it. But still, because you're actually hearing the songs of so much discussion, you may just think all of it is a bit lame or there's not much difference between the heartfelt tunes and the overproduced hits.

It's like in a novel where the characters talk about how good or bad some off-stage writing may be. If we're not exposed to the writing in question, we take it on faith that some imagined art is one way or the other. But when, say, that American-Idol-parody single is actually performed on stage, nothing is left to the imagination: You're left to appreciate its lameness or actually enjoy it and thus feel at odds with the protagonist.

Granted, it's usually very obvious how you're supposed to feel about a song. But the composers do show a sense of subtlety in the portrayal of a drunken wedding singer character who begins the show as a joke but later reveals a latent talent. His song progression is supposed to reflect that change, and I thought it did. But then there's the possibility that viewers will find even the "good" music in the show to be just as cheesy and predictable as the plot -- and I think the plot pretty much matches that description. But what kept me entertained was that I actually enjoyed listening to the various styles of song -- rock-pop, cabaret, soul, etc. -- and respected the performers' and writers' versatility.

Still in previews -- and I'd imagine hoping to stir up some buzz and ticket sales ahead of the opening -- the production arranged for a five-track CD sampler of the music to be handed out after the show. And listening it to a second and third time, I have to say it's not that bad. Perhaps a little too earnest and cliche at times, but still, worth a listen, even if the songs may never hit the airwaves. Oh, but I have to admit, the closing number, "Just Another Year," seems a blatant attempt to recreate the popularity and theme of "Seasons of Love" from Rent.

The theater itself is supposedly a former zipper factory. It has the feel of a small music venue, which works well with this show, and many of the 199 seats are old minivan benches and car seats torn from their former homes and stamped with letters and numbers. They make for pretty comfortable seating.

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